Focus on Economic Development

By April Bourie –

“Great places to live are great places to visit,” said Brent DeRaad, president and CEO of Visit Tucson. That’s why Visit Tucson’s three-year strategic plan includes a strong focus on economic development.

“In the past five years, we have evolved from a company that did a terrific job of marketing and selling into a collaborative economic-development organization that not only focuses on marketing, promotion and sales, but also weighs in on roads and other infrastructure, international trade, bond elections and more.”

DeRaad addressed attendees at Visit Tucson’s annual meeting in June. He highlighted the tourism organization’s recent economic development efforts that include partnering with Sun Corridor Inc. to host the Site Selectors Guild, which brought more than 50 top corporate site selectors to the region, and participating in Sun Corridor’s “Soft Landings” program to educate Caterpillar employees and their families about what it is like to live and work in Tucson. Visit Tucson has also partnered with the Tucson Metro Chamber and the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to discuss additional air-service opportunities and options for more rail and car transportation between Phoenix and Tucson.

“These relationships are important for Visit Tucson to expand its reach into the economic development realm,” said DeRaad. “We want tourism to be top of mind when these types of decisions are being made.”

Visit Tucson also hired staff to help it better understand Mexican visitors and their needs. Because many Mexicans come to Tucson for medical services, Visit Tucson hired a new medical-tourism “concierge” to help patients from Mexico and their families find accommodations and activities to enjoy while in Tucson, and to assist with any other service needs they may have. This person also hears from these customers about how businesses and the Tucson community in general can improve to better meet these needs.

Visit Tucson is the destination marketing organization for Tucson and Southern Arizona. Its mission is “to drive economic development by connecting visitors with their ideal travel and meetings experiences.”

Going through the strategic planning process made it clear that Visit Tucson should continue its focus on economic development. “During the process, we found that community support for tourism was stronger than average, but that the destination rated below average when looking at product development,” DeRaad said.

After conducting a survey and holding meetings with community leaders, the board of directors established five goals and 26 objectives to achieve in the next three years. Visit Tucson staff then created strategies and tactics to finish the plan, which can be seen in detail on the website at

The five main goals were to:

• Promote Tucson’s designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy and build Visit Tucson’s “Free Yourself” brand

• Use innovative and aggressive marketing strategies to generate increased leisure and meetings travel

• Engage the community through the development of a tourism master plan

• Promote and grow the region’s visitor-worthy events and establish a marquee event to attract travelers

• Enlarge Visit Tucson’s budget with a focus on sustainable funding sources

A continued focus on economic development is obvious in the strategies and tactics of the plan, which include creating a City of Gastronomy tour, assisting attractions in their goals to expand and renovate, growing and creating new events that draw more visitors, and creating a tourism master plan that not only focuses on the tourism industry but also on infrastructure and other aspects of the community to make it more attractive to tourists. “The biggest contributions that we can make in the next decade are in economic development for the region,” said DeRaad.

Incorporating the right technologies to draw the younger generations of travelers is another major focus of the strategic plan. “The future of destination marketing is through videos and being able to show and tell our stories in that manner,” he said.

Because of the popularity of Facebook and YouTube, Visit Tucson will continue to focus on improving video views and duration of viewing on these two media, said Allison Schult, Visit Tucson VP of marketing. Visit Tucson was able to generate 3.2 million video views on Facebook last fiscal year and video views on YouTube jumped 54 percent. Other forms of video promotion will include working with the Arizona Office of Tourism to include content about Tucson as a destination on online travel shows.

Videos also will be used to target meeting planners. “We used to target business travelers differently than leisure travelers,” said Graeme Hughes, Visit Tucson VP of sales. “Today’s business travelers are actually ‘bleisure’ travelers looking for a destination that offers lots of activities.” This requires meeting planners to sell potential attendees not only on the business aspect of the meeting but also the leisure opportunities of the destination.

Skift, a company that provides media, insights and marketing for meeting planners, produced three 60- to 90-second videos about this destination. “No one wants to hear what professionals are saying about their own destinations,” Hughes said. “Meeting planners are going to Skift to find out more about destinations. We earn credibility because Skift is thought of as an unbiased third-party provider of information.” The response to the program is impressive, he said. Meeting planners are finding out about options they never knew were available in Tucson and also discovering various ways to immerse their groups in this region’s rich and diverse local culture.

The latest recognition for Tucson as a top tourism destination came just two weeks after Visit Tucson’s annual meeting. On June 15, Tucson was named No. 2 of the 10 “Best Small American Cities” (population under 1 million) – raking second to Honolulu and ahead of tourism hubs Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Asheville. The research report was produced by tourism industry think tank Resonance Consultancy, along with National Geographic.

“We’re thrilled,” DeRaad said. “To see Tucson highly ranked for our museums, entertainment, neighborhoods and outdoor activities just reinforces what we’ve believed all along – Tucson is a great place to visit, live, work and play.”

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